There is a certain class of country music critic that looks to be appalled, who hunts for offence. When the CMA Award nominations came out this week, it was a surprise to many that Kane Brown was not among the nominees. This was obviously, beyond any doubt, evidence of how the CMA was, in the words of one activist, ‘founded on white supremacy’. Apparently you are a ‘sealion’ if you ask for evidence of this, though I have been told that the CMA are not anti-racist enough.
Those critics, many of whom have come across from other fields of cultural journalism, have an agenda: they want country music to adapt to the new puritanical era, and they feel terribly smug when the CMA, say, give a bauble to a black man or a woman or a gay woman or a trans disabled non-binary person. That is how progress is made: through award shows.
Kane Brown would, I am sure, love to add some awards to his mantelpiece, but he’d much rather sell out stadia, write great songs and fulfil his early promise when he was uploading cover videos of neo-traditional songs onto Youtube. He has navigated commercial country music expertly: indeed, side one track one of his debut album was written by Florida Georgia Line and had him boast of wanting to ‘make my hometown proud’ while shouting out ‘North-West Georgia’.
This is a country boy who has made radio-friendly pop songs like Good As You, Heaven and the Lauren Alaina duet What Ifs (the pair were at school together). His song Short Skirt Weather was an attempt to update Achy Breaky Heart that deserved to be a bigger smash.
As with Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini, Kane has been pushed to a pop audience thanks to his vocal on One Thing Right, one of those streaming-friendly tracks by Marshmello that blends into the background. He’s also become a father and a record label owner, guiding the career of trio Restless Road on his 1021 Entertainment imprint. He is booked to play Hammersmith Apollo in January, which is a big show of support from his label but which may run into the cost of living fiasco and sell fewer tickets than planned.
Kane’s third album emerges a few weeks after Luke Combs, who has announced a pair of gigs at the O2 Arena for next year, put out his third. They are both Sony recording artists whose success impacts the bottom line, which means an album like Different Man is a product as much of the boardroom as the studio. Over 17 tracks, Kane builds on his existing catalogue and ticks various boxes to appeal to folk in Louisiana and Los Angeles, as per the modern country superstar like Combs, Morgan Wallen or Thomas Rhett.
The three tracks which warmed fans up for Different Man are typical. Actually it’s four, as Kane sung on 2021’s biggest radio song Famous Friends, a Chris Young tune about hometown heroes which is absent from this album just as Mitchell Tenpenny’s Chris young duet is missing from his album.
One Mississippi is a drinking song co-written by Ernest, while Like I Love Country Music is a marketing tool. Over a four-note riff, Kane namechecks Alan Jackson, Brand New Man (Ronnie Dunn actually pops up and takes the money), Johnny and June (boring, it’s been done), being ‘high as Willie’ and ‘the radio’. Plus eight bars of fiddle in the middle, plus a pedal steel outro. Don’t tell me this wasn’t cooked up in a boardroom.
Georgia frames the album, in a manner which was probably drawn up by a man in a suit saying: ‘When people think Kane Brown they think…GEORGIA!!!’ Track one is called Bury Me In Georgia, which begins with a tolling bell, fiddle and chain gang percussion: ‘When it’s my day, put me in that clay’ is the lyric in the chorus that leaps out. Track 17 is Dear Georgia, co-written with Josh Hoge and Ernest among others and sees Kane remember where he came from over an achingly contemporary pop-country track of the sort Thomas Rhett has been singing over for a decade.
The 15 tracks in between, all commendably co-written by Kane, deal with the usual rural affairs. Ernest continues his hot streak by writing the ploddy, fiddle-featuring Go Around – which mentions ‘a what if song’ in a very meta moment – as well as the chirpy love song Nothin’ I’d Change and Drunk or Dreamin’. That song gives its title to that world tour and has a soft shuffle and acoustic guitar line to evoke a somnolent state.
Mike Posner was in the room for Grand, which is a pop song produced by LA-based Andrew Goldstein on which Kane raps about how his life is pretty good. It’s the age-old trope of Nashville acts copying what happens in LA, but don’t worry because he’s going to be buried in Georgia and he put fiddle on the track immediately before it!! The track after Grand is See You Like I Do, co-written by Devin Dawson. ‘Beverly or Sunset…with Gigi and Giselle’ reminds his audience that he is trying to get people in LA (Beverly Hills, Sunset Boulevard) to appreciate his wife Katelyn, who is part of Brand Kane Brown in the ever durable country power couple manner.
Romance is a big part of Kane’s life and that of his intended audience, who have already lapped up tunes like Homesick and Worship You. There are three more here: Thank God, which features Katelyn’s fluttering pop vocals, is perfect for a TikTok clip or Instagram feed; Losing You and Leave You Alone are sung excellently with a commercial sheen provided by Dann Huff’s production, and very on-brand. Like a ‘red wine stain’, Kane won’t vanish.
Blake Shelton pops up on the title track, where Kane’s vocal is excellent as he considers and denies alternative things to do than sing and perform (and help those Sony suits make a lot of money). The great Adam Craig gets a nice paycheck for co-writing the breakup ballad Whiskey Sour, which begins with ten seconds of fiddle, while Kane’s voice dips low for the fun tune about a femme fatale, Devil Don’t Even Bother. Pop’s Last Name is your typical ‘I miss daddy’ song that was probably brainstormed in that meeting room.
I know I’ve wasted 1000 words here to convince readers that this is a typical Nashville record. Like Thomas Rhett and Luke Bryan before him, Kane Brown will succeed because he’s a good old country boy who can also do pop music. There’s money behind him, the brand is strong and it’s the right time for Nashville to push through a new non-white star who isn’t called Darius (with apologies to Jimmie Allen).
There’s a formula in Music City. It works. Just ask those Sony boardroom members lounging in their beach houses.